Down by the billabong

 

A series of adecdotes or vignettes is a different way of telling a story. They are mini-stories told around some common theme, some common place or involving the same person. This brings an overall unity. There is no fixed length. They might be minor incidents that, together, reveal a bigger story…

WHY SHE DID IT I didn’t know. It was something spontaneous, something she did in an idle moment, perhaps.

She was eighteen, I knew, and I had formed a desultory kind of relationship with her over the last few months. It was I who had asked her along on this camping weekend.

I had met Mandy’s parents, an easy going couple. She and her brother lived with them in an apartment in the distinctly middle class harbourside suburb of Waverton. Now, here she was with this group of 20 or so friends and acquaintances camping on the sandy shore of a large billabong, as waterholes are traditionally known, somewhere in the Lower Blue Mountains.

But now she was doing something… what was it?… strange? interesting? I wasn’t sure. I had been talking with someone when I noticed.

…she leaned the other way to regain her balance, only this time she leaned just a little too far. She tottered… rebalanced… tottered again… …

A tall tree had fallen into the waterhole in some past time. It must have been years ago because all that remained was a smooth trunk polished by the passage of high water and years in the summer sun. It sloped gently from the shore to a little over half way across. And, now, along it Mandy was carefully making her way.

Why, I had no idea. Whatever the reason, if there actually was one, Mandy was about three quarters the way along the log which means she was about half way across the billabong. As I watched I realised the potential for mishap.

Mandy was moving carefully along the log, her arms outstretched either side in balance, stepping slowly and carefully. Then… a wobble… she corrected her balance and took another step… again a wobble and again she leaned the other way to regain her balance, only this time she leaned just a little too far. She tottered… rebalanced… tottered again… and the inevitable happened as she seemingly ever so slowly tottered into the still waters of the billabong and disappeared with a loud SPLASH!

How deep was this billabong? Should I go help her I silently asked myself? No matter. She soon reappeared standing in waist-deep water looking rather wet and somewhat sheepish.

Mandy waded to shore, accompanied by the raucous laughter of muself and that other person I had been talking to. As the ripples dissipated, it was a wet and bedraggled Mandy that emerged from the billabong.

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THERE by the billabong that weekend were a couple a little older than the average age present.

Linda was a softly spoken woman probably in her early thirties. Her long light brown hair spilled around an olive skin face to fall below her shoulders. She wore it in the style of the day, which was loose and natural. Roger, her partner, was a nuggety man perhaps a few years older than Linda with shorter, though not too short, black hair that made a curly mass atop his head. It was matched by a short but also-curly beard that enveloped the lower part of his face. Like his partner, Roger wore one of those checked wool shirts of the kind favoured by loggers, hunters and bushwalkers.

This was the ‘overland trail’ along which travelled through the seventies the footloose, the adventurous, the curious and the lost…

The interesting thing about this couple was that they had only recently returned from an overland journey that started in London, traversed southern Europe, crossed into Turkey, passed through the Middle East, stopped for a week in Kabul, then on to India and up to Kathmandu where they has spent a month. After that it was a hop over to Malaysia and another to Indonesia before coming into Australia.

This was the ‘overland trail’ along which travelled through the seventies the footloose, the adventurous, the curious and the lost among Western youth. Often they came seeking they know not what. Some travelled to spend months in India in some ashram seeking spiritual insight. Others were headed to Nepal to walk among the ranges or for the everyday hustle, confusion and otherworldliness of Kathmandu. Others came just for the hell of it, for the visceral experience of rough overland travel.

Also known as the Hippie Trail, none traversing it could have guessed that by the end of that decade it would close and those adventurous overland journeys of geographic, cultural, spiritual and self discovery would be ended. In their place would by the Russian war in Afghanistan followed by the rolling wars that continue to the present day.
………………

WE HAD DESCENDED to the billabong down a sometimes steep, sandy track that passed through eucalypt forest and by outcrops of orange-yellow sandstone that characterises these mountains. On my back a small, olive green pack containing sleeping bag and odds and ends. Hanging off it in front was a large billy, it’s base blackened by past campfires.

I wore an olive green military shirt that day, and the blue jeans that was just about the only type of trousers my cohort wore. No hat though, and sneakers for footwear. Much the same as I wore in the city.

Our intention in driving up into the Blue Mountains was to spend a couple days out of the city. There, in the city, we would congregate on weekends at a bookshop that, in the room behind it, became a venue for acoustic music or parties on weekend nights.

We cooked and ate and we revelled in that life-in-the-moment experience when there is nothing you have to do, nowhere you have to be…

We put up tents in the cleared sandy patches where other campers had set up temporary home over past years and the decades, collected firewood and, come the approach of sundown, started a campfire on which we cooked simple and plain camp food.

That weekend we sat and talked, we lounged around on the sandy shore and we swam in the billabong. We cooked and ate and we revelled in that life-in-the-moment experience when there is nothing you have to do, nowhere you have to be.

It had been a weekend of fine weather. Come Sunday afternoon we made our uphill way back to where we had left the cars, We returned to our city lives.

Some of us would remain friends or acquaintances over the coming year and a bit. Some would disappear before that to who knew where — we were never to see them again. But come that year and a bit we would all disperse with the closure of the bookshop and the scene around it. Some went to new lives on new land sharing communities in the north. Some drifted into an adult life of career, home and family… for a little while, anyway. Some would head a long way off to places with tall dark forests and steep mountains. And some of us would maintain that kind of contact that becomes less frequent over the years but that is always there, partly forgotten, hidden.

We scattered, we adapted to new places and new lifeways, but we remembered. And, for those who were there, we remembered that fine weekend when we gathered down by the creek in the Blue Mountains where it widens into a billabong before resuming its flow to who knew where.

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